Inside an Ethiopian ‘madhouse’

 Bole Airport

The plane, boarders and personnel are seen ahead of first flight restarting air service after 2 decades between Ethiopia and Eritrea, at the International Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 18, 2018. 

Photo credit: AFP

The other day, we had one of those nightmares travellers with onward connecting flights suffer. Our Ethiopian Airlines flight out of the Botswanan capital Gaborone to Addis Ababa was delayed by over an hour.

Ethiopia’s Bole airport is a madhouse; so we figured that, by the time we landed and made our way through the transfer security that is thronged with hundreds and hundreds of people, and then through to the gate, our flight would be a quarter way to Nairobi.

The pilot made up a lot of time, and we arrived in Bole at about the time we were supposed to take off for Nairobi. What followed was something nobody in our party, which included seasoned frequent travellers, had ever seen.

When the aeroplane’s door opened, several buses were waiting with airline staff holding placards and shouting “Nairobi”, “Shanghai”, “Singapore” and other destinations. Connecting passengers hurriedly jumped into respective buses. But they didn’t take us to the terminal building; they took us directly to the Nairobi flight, and we ran up the stairs. It all took about 15 minutes, for those of us who were alighting, to take off.

We geared ourselves for our bags to get to Nairobi the next day, at the earliest, because we thought there was simply no way they could transfer them in that short window. At the Jomo Kenyatta International, we waited for all the bags to come, to file the formal lost bag notice. However, just at the last minute—lo and behold!—the bags came. Resentment and anger turned to surprised joy. It had seemed impossible but, somehow, they pulled it off.

On reflection, that episode explained why Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s largest and most successful carrier. It seems to be very good at that kind of back office stuff, which has handed it the far-out dominant share of the African passenger and cargo traffic market.

But there is something else that has nothing to do with Ethiopian Airlines at play at Bole. Over the past 15 years, the airport has undergone about three expansions but it is still hell. It’s chock-a-block with human bodies and, in places, there is hardly any wiggle room. Every time I have passed through it, I find the multitudes have multiplied. Too many passengers is a good problem to have but it seems Bole is buckling under it.

As other African airlines flounder, it seems Ethiopian Airlines has capitalised. It now has flights to over 150 destinations, more than twice competitors like Egypt Air. It would seem strange to first fly up north to Addis Ababa, then south to Botswana.

However, it is both a cheaper and quicker route, because the layover in Johannesburg, if you flew there from Nairobi, to connect to places like Gaborone and other southern African capitals is anything between four and six hours.

Rise of Asia

Three other factors are playing in Addis Ababa’s favour. The rise of Asia. That, and the increased traffic from Africa and Asia, have made Addis Ababa the most ideal launch- and landing pad for exit and entrance, respectively, into the continent.

Secondly, the rise of the East African flank of the continent as the leading economic and population growth zone has sucked travellers toward the region. And Addis Ababa has been most strategically placed to profit from that.

Thirdly, the extremist violence and the climate change crisis in the Sahel, middle Africa and Central Africa have pushed back movement toward Ethiopia, as the largest economy in Africa’s elbow and the most populous landlocked country in the world. Location has rarely served an African country so well.

The irony is that many of the things Ethiopia does, and its politics, undermine this strategic dividend. It is only a year since the war between the rebellious Tigray province, and the federal government in Addis Ababa. It was a remarkably violent war and Addis Ababa, in alliance with Eritrea, starved Tigray to submission and nearly pummelled it back into the Stone Age. A similar conflict could well be developing in the Amhara region, where the government has now imposed a state of emergency.

It is a hardy and unusual country, Ethiopia is. It has 70 per cent of the mountains in Africa. It is the only African country with its own script and calendar (which is around seven years behind the Gregorian one). It is still a very closed economy.

It has not known gentle democratic rule in over 3,000 years and has been bedevilled by conflict for a long time. It has also endured many horrific natural calamities, such as deadly famines, which killed millions.

Ethiopia, though, seems to thrive in adversity. It’s unlikely that its upheavals will derail Bole in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, I think its heady growth and expansion will continue.

In another 25 years, Bole will probably be a gigantic green zone, fenced off from the rest of Addis Ababa, secured by major firepower, as the rest of Ethiopia wallows in fratricidal politics. It will be rich, and millions of people will be passing through it.

If Africa were ever to have an airport city-state, Bole would be the first.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3